Dear Dad

by andrew.mcnulty / 04 September, 2004
It's often only when our fathers are no longer around that we realise all we wanted to say. To celebrate Father's Day, 11 well-known New Zealanders share those things left unsaid.

Fatherhood is one of the most important yet least celebrated institutions in society, a role still rarely examined in the media, save for the recording of bitter claim and counterclaim stemming from Family Court proceedings. Nobody can even say how many fathers there are in New Zealand. No one has ever counted. The best we can do is add the number of couples with children (407,793) to the number of sole-father families (33,366) to get an estimate of 441,159. But as Victoria University family researcher Jan Pryor says, "We're understanding a lot more about just how important fathers are", a comment that's a far cry from anthropologist Margaret Mead's media-friendly soundbite: "Mothers are a biological necessity, fathers are a social invention." Of course, despite radical change in the framework of family, it is much, much more than Mead allowed. Fatherhood is one of life's foundation stones, a role that defines a child's life, whether it is defined by affection or absence. Its importance is implicit, rarely recognised and only occasionally articulated, and then often too late. Many of us don't get the chance to tell our fathers while they are alive how much we love them, how important they are and how, for better or worse, they have shaped our lives. Which is why, to celebrate Father's Day, the Listener invited 11 notable New Zealanders to share what they would say to their dads if they were still around to read their words. And in so doing, offer us all some insight into what it means to be a father in New Zealand.

Kerre Woodham, broadcaster, to Mike Woodham, banker and insurance broker.

Dear Dad

I wish you were here to see that your faith in me has been justified. I did come right, just as you always said I would. It can't have been easy for you at times. I went from being the perfect little girl to what could charitably be described as a flighty young woman, but you were always utterly loyal and you never said a word against me. Well, not to my face anyway.

You were a funny old thing. On the surface, you were an irascible, dictatorial old dinosaur whose views were totally intransigent and at odds with my flabby liberalism. We fought furiously as I got older, but as Mum says, our arguments were good training for my present job as a talkback host.

I can remember with crystal clarity you thundering that if I ever got pregnant I needn't bother coming home. I was only 10 at the time, and admittedly it was in response to a family crisis, but nonetheless, I was prepared for the worst when I found myself pregnant and unmarried. I planned to break the news on a Friday night. You would be at the club - you were always at the club on a Friday night. I would tell Mum and she could tell you. And once she'd told you, I was prepared to be banished from our staunchly Catholic family. As fate would have it, you were home and Mum was out. I steeled myself and blurted out the news and there was a long silence. And then you came through. Just like you always did whenever I needed you. "Ah, love," you said. "What do you need? What can we do?" You were there for me from day one, and when Kate,

your first grandchild, arrived, you absolutely adored her. We may not have understood one another's worlds, but the love we had in common transcended our differences.

I've finished my degree - I majored in history and political science. The history was for you, because you'd always regretted not being able to go to uni and study the subject. As it turned out, I loved it myself, and now I'm doing honours. I graduate in a week, and I'll be thinking of you when I march up on stage and accept my award. You were my inspiration and I'm grateful for that. I'm still off the booze and still with my Irishman. Kate has grown into a fine young woman, and my baby brother and his beautiful family are doing well.

Things are good, Dad, and so am I. But then you always believed in me. I just wish you were here to see that the best of you has manifested itself as the best in me.

I miss you and love you,

Kerre

Dr Roderick Deane,

Telecom chairman, to Reginald (Reg) Roderick Deane (Chief Executive), general manager of the Wairarapa Electric Power Board and president of the Electrical Supply Authorities.

My dear Dad,

It is seven months since you left us and now we have the first Father's Day that we will not share in 63 years.

On your birthday recently, Gillian and I decided to go to St Paul's while we were in London to give thanks for your life. I dressed in my suit and tie for you, an unfashionable thing to do these days. This gave us the special attention of the ushers and great seats in the front row. We knew you would be pleased.

Two strong-minded males in a family were always going to find things to debate, sometimes vigorously. You were always so strict and insistent on modesty that I was touched to find all the carefully filed newspaper cuttings you had kept about me.

When I prepared your eulogy, I thought of my friend Robert Putman's writings on social capital. It reminded me of how many professional and community organisations you had belonged to and helped, and how people like you underpinned the strong and positive networks in our society. When you left us, everyone spoke of the respect they held for you and of your great integrity.

Thank you for all your love and support and wonderful organisational skills. We realised how the war years must have been so lonely and difficult, and I found this stranger who returned took much more of my mother's time than I was accustomed to for the years you were away. It was a long time later that I realised the full import of you being the only person in your training group of eight who returned home. And I will always remember how important it must have been to the families of the others that you visited them on your return.

You took me to numerous hockey games throughout Taranaki, when you had no interest in this sport. On the other hand, you taught Jill and me to swim and surf, and together we loved the beaches and forming our family relay team. You were determinedly, endlessly, helpful in planning in great detail my courses at university and my first jobs. I was the great beneficiary of all of this.

You and my much loved mother gave Jill and me a framework within which to live our lives and follow our dreams.

Our memories of you will always be memories of a caring and loving husband, a devoted father and grandfather, something of a family patriarch, a chief executive, a community spirited citizen, a strong Christian, keen sportsman, and, as so many people who cared for you in your last year or two said to me, a real gentleman.

With love,

Roderick

David McPhail,

actor currently in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to Alexander McPhail, leather merchant and president of the NZ Rugby Football Union.

Hello Poppa.

First, it's changed around, the old family home. Manchester St's lined with prostitutes now. You used to stride into town for meetings of the Canterbury Rugby Union. Well, it'd take longer now having to walk around all the girls.

When I drive past the old place my breath is caught on the edge of some memory. Salt on porridge, the smell of Benson and Hedges cigarettes in red tins, my first furtive sight of your Masonic apron on the top of the wardrobe, your voice like marbles rolling around a saucepan.

You were an older man when I was born. Early sixties. Later, I learnt people mistook you for my grandfather. I gather I wasn't a surprise, although at your age you surprised a lot people when I arrived. But, you'd been doing that all your life. You were one of 12, maybe 13 children. You washed in the Heathcote River, left school at 12, started a leather tannery, became a successful businessman, coined a pertinent aphorism, "Some relatives are like potatoes. The best are under the ground", and became president of the New Zealand Rugby Union.

That's when you met my mother. You were a widower and she worked in the perfume department at Kirkcaldie and Staines. You'd come on the ferry from Lyttelton for a meeting and you spotted her. She was 20 years younger than you, so you must have had a lot of charm. I know you had the audacity. You proposed, maybe three times. But, as you always said, if Mohammed won't come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed. My mother wasn't a mountain and you weren't Mohammed, but somehow you got together. I remember many things, Poppa. You trying to make me brave with dogs. Sitting in the back of a Ford Prefect with no seatbelt and no hope as you invented new ways to drive down or across Bealey Ave. The panama hats and the watch chain and the wonderful, ever-widening lines of books. The sigh of your hand through my hair before I fell asleep.

You died when I was 10. I remember the day because I'd never smelt lilies before nor seen men cry. You have a great-grandson now. His name is Milo. He looks like us. A bit like you, a bit like me and a lot like your grandson, his father. We'll teach him to be a lot like you, but maybe we'll make him a better driver.

Your loving son,

David

John Tamihere, MP,

to John Hamil Tamihere, coalminer & self-employed steel fixer.

Dear Dad

I never got to tell you what you meant to me. I, like you, struggle to express my feelings. We used to show it by a smile, a glare, or by a joke, by a comment, always about someone else, but really about us.

I still blame you for not being a millionaire and passing this on to me, but your word was your bond, regardless of consequence.

You gave up the best of you, the all of you. To others looking in, it might not have been enough - to me it was everything.

Love

John

Brian Turner,

poet, to Alf Turner, cycle mechanic, taxi driver, then truck driver (also father of Glen and Greg), who died earlier this year.

Prime Time

If my Dad's on his way to heaven

I hope there's an escalator;

he'd forgotten

how to climb the mountain happiness

years before. Life's caress

is sweet until duress

takes over and what do you do

but soldier on ...

It's a bugger sometimes,

the rut we get bogged in

chocka with slush and slime.

In time he came to grief

in the foothills of discontent

and found them overcrowded,

the fallow ground not to his liking.

But no one led him there,

he just got lost

en route to nowhere in particular

and ended up

where nobodies and somebodies,

bewildered parodies

of each other, mingle disconsolately

and have done

since the year dot.

Bye, Dad, you were prime

in your prime. See you

in apple blossom time.

Brian Turner

Alan Duff,

author, to Gowan Duff, forestry scientist.

Dear Dad

Going on 12 years since you died. Your grand-daughter, Rosie, turned 13 in July and she's beautiful, highly intelligent and an independent-minded Duff through and through.

Virginia turns 16 soon and she's tall and gorgeous and has her mother's lovely nature. And would like to be an actor.

I can remember like yesterday near your last word to me being "powerful", when I asked what you thought of my second novel, One Night Out Stealing. That was the greatest "review" I have ever had, since it was you who instilled the love of literature in me, whose broad range of books in our home gave all us children so much, whose honesty in everything was paramount, including your honest opinion of my works. You were so proud of Once Were Warriors. Just as I was proud of you. How I loved going to dinner with you and proudly, but subtly, showing you off as my father.

You'll be proud to know your love of literature left a legacy with a literacy programme I founded called Books in Homes. I give you so much of the credit for this great programme. Just as I have dedicated every single one of my books to you. Dad, we've put four million - yes, million, not thousand, as you always questioned the veracity of figures - four million books into the homes of over 100,000 disadvantaged children. Your legacy, Dad. I was just the conduit and many others helped make it happen. You'd not be comfortable being praised publicly like this, modesty being so much you.

Just as I know you'd scoff at my dialogue with "you" numerous evenings a year when I fix on a star and have a little chat. In Wellington recently after I had given a very well-received address, I emerged from the Beehive and said, "Thank you, my beautiful father." You'd have squirmed at the "beautiful" and insisted there is nothing after death. Which I used to believe - until you died. I have your ashes here in my office. I'll see they're scattered in your beloved forests somewhere in Rotorua. One day. Just can't bear to part with "you".

Not sure how you'd feel about the Listener now, the publication your father Oliver was founding editor of. They're proudly Left, as you were Left. Except you had the honesty and courage not to be blindly anything and I'm not sure this lot have those qualities. Such a shame when Grandad left such a legacy of editorial integrity and fine writing and could not be bullied or influenced by anyone or any ideology. Like you, he stood for Truth. I have his portrait right beside me as I write this and your genetic portrait right through me.

Dad, your great-grandson namesake, Gowan, is an outstanding rugby player and a beautiful human being. Your grandson Quentin is a barrister and also has business interests. Grand-daughter Katea has published a children's book and starts a newspaper column soon. Lots of your grandkids have university degrees. All due to your influence. Oh, you live on all right. I miss you, Dad.

Love from your son

Alan

Jenny Gibbs,

art patron, to Ross Gore, artist, writer historian.

Dear Daddy,

I think my most enduring memory of your later years is the hours and hours you spent happily - and often unsuccessfully - casting a fly for trout in the western bays of Lake Taupo. You had a scathing contempt for anyone who fished trout by any other means. You'd be proud and probably surprised to know that I do my own hot smoking these days, even if it is with bought fish.

All your life you carried a sketchbook. You sat and drew and painted wherever we went - family holidays in our old army tent, family picnics up rivers. I showed no great interest in art when you were around, yet these days it's a major focus of my life. Maybe it's genetic - your father, too, was an artist - maybe you simply taught me how to see. I hope you'd be proud of the fact that I have acquired some of your paintings - and those of your father - to give to my grandchildren.

In all my life I never saw you other than totally gentle - totally a gentleman - even in the early years when you drank too much and we had no money. I want to acknowledge the great strength and courage it took to stop drinking when you did, in an era when no one spoke of alcoholism and everyone pressed "just a little one" on anyone who declined alcohol.

And I wish I had fully realised how much you missed Mummy when she died - how lonely you must have felt. We often only realise things about our parents as we get older and pass through similar stages of life.

We often leave it too late to say thank you - and I love you.

Jenny

Rachael King, writer, to Michael King, historian.

Dad

It'll be our first Father's Day without you. Not that you ever got much out of me - no present, no card, just the standard phonecall that by the end you could recite along with me: "Happy Father's Day. You know I love and appreciate you every day of the year."

Until last year. You would have been surprised to find the box in the mail with tiny eggs carved from different types of rock. But at that stage you'd just told us about the cancer and I thought it might be my last chance to actually give you something. I went into a panic, in case I couldn't find anything suitable - what do you give a father as possibly his only Father's Day present ever? In the end, it was just sitting there, on a table in a shopping mall in suburban Auckland and it was perfect. I went for the "entirely useless but rather pretty", as I wrote in the card, along with some things I might have left unsaid over the years.

You replied: "Warmest thanks for that useless but utterly beautiful Father's Day present. Actually 'useless' is not the right word for something that gives so much pleasure (Thomistic definition of beauty: 'Id quod visum placet - that which when perceived generates pleasure')."

It turned out it was your last Father's Day, but not for the reason we thought at the time. How sick is it to be thankful for a disease that made me express things that I never would have said otherwise? You might have died in a car crash without my ever having said them.

You also might not have known how well-loved you were, Dad, if you hadn't got those 900 or so letters, cards and emails that gave you so much strength. People, strangers even, got the chance to tell you how important you are, instead of saving it up for after your death; but even then it kept coming. If only you could see how many have bought your book now - you'd be so happy. New Zealand will forever remember you as their Michael. Sharing you has been bittersweet.

So I have a new job since you left - professional daughter. I've given five public speeches in the last few months, accepted two awards on your behalf, been filmed by and interviewed for TV, and seen my face in the newspaper looking pale and sad. And written this letter, of course. When they contacted me, I imagined asking you if you thought I should do it. I know what your reply would have been: if I was serious about being a writer I should take every opportunity to get my name in print.

Hope you're enjoying the view. We miss you.

Rachael

Sandra Coney,

feminist and Auckland regional councillor, to Tom Pearce, NZ Rugby Football Union president and Auckland Regional Council chairman.

Dear Dad,

I'm going to be 60 next month! Hard to believe your youngest daughter is middle-aged, verging on elderly. You were only 63 when you died - catching us all by surprise. In the hospital, I didn't understand the stop-start breathing, your body preparing to go. I remember you badly wanted to suck an orange, but they wouldn't let you.

It was good we were talking before you died. We hadn't been getting on. You didn't like my lifestyle, the man in my life or my radical politics. Security was paramount to you, I preferred risk. Despite your disapproval, Mum reported that at civic functions during the time the police were raiding the Remuera abortion clinic, you'd tell people proudly that your daughter was working there.

I never had a dull moment being your daughter. You put huge energy into life. You never excused us because we were girls. Do you remember the day the two of us swam to Pollen Island? From the city shore you pointed out a distant white sliver and said that's where we were going. I was daunted, the water was grey and choppy, but we swam steadily, you shepherding me like a whale with a calf. We sat on the shellbank and looked back at Pt Chevalier, the Norfolk pine in our front garden tiny on the skyline - it was the best moment.

You are still a vivid presence in our lives. I look at your three grown grandsons and see flashes of you in them. You are part of our conversations, on the road out to Piha ("Dad would've passed this guy miles ago"), watching rugby on TV ("Well, Dad was wrong about TV killing the game!"). Mum is in a wheelchair now, but you're more real to her than people she met half an hour ago. "When do you think your father's coming home?" Mum says to me. I ask, "Where do you think he is, Mum?" "Oh, off on a rugby trip somewhere," she says, and we leave it at that.

I don't think you would have guessed I would follow you into regional government. One corridor is lined with photos of your 13 years there, you looking more weary with each year. Those talks at the dinner table, where you'd rehearse your next strategy, did sink in: do your homework, know your facts, stick to the rules.

I work at my desk surrounded by cartons packed full of your life - your letters, monogrammed travel blankets, your NAC cabin bag, speech notes, wrestling medals, the plans of your boat. I don't know what to do with them, can't throw them away. I've even found your own elegy there, handwritten in pencil on a scrap of paper. "Bury me deep in some high cliff/ Where lonely seabirds wheel and cry/No marble sepulchre for me/But a monument of sea and sky./Say no prayers over my resting place/And let no voice be raised in hymn/For the rushing wind shall sing for me/The roar of surf, my requiem."

Do you still hear that thundering surf, on the coast that you taught me to love?

Sandra

Bob Kerridge,

SPCA chief executive, to Sir Robert Kerridge, movie mogul.

Dear Dad,

Is it really 25 years since you passed on? Seems like yesterday - much has happened since.

Such is the Kerridge legend you left behind that biographer Dianne Haworth has decided to write a book about the both of us, called Father & Son.

Oh, what interesting anecdotes we were able to recall. How on your fifth birthday you asked for a little desk, and with switches saved from broken lightbulbs built "executive buttons", which you pushed to summon an invisible army of staff. The crumpled carbon paper full of numbers you found on the Gisborne footpath (or did you?), which revealed how profitable the local cinema was and inspired your foray into the world of theatre. Your bumptious coup with Lord Rank, your wives and other liaisons (tut tut)!

I have often wondered why, with your deep love of your mother Ellen, whose photo was never out of your sight, you had such difficulty finding happiness with another woman. It was always a great sadness to me that with all your success, your home life was so continuously wretched.

Well, Dad, time moves on, and so does the legend. I remember you telling me once that "It doesn't matter what you do in life, son, even sweeping the streets is important, but, whatever you do, do it well." And what a tough teacher you were in ensuring that I did.

That is why during your lifetime I so fervently wanted to make you proud of my endeavours. Even now that you've gone, that is still one of my principal motivations in all I undertake. Are you proud, Dad? One thing I know for sure is that with all the turmoil that surrounded your personal life and, I must add, despite those who tried to drive us apart, nothing ever diminished the love we had for each other as father and son.

You are never far from my thoughts. In fact, that portrait of you painted by C Rose that hung behind your desk now adorns the hallway in our small home. And as all good paintings should, your blue eyes seem to follow me all around the house.

Still keeping an eye on me, eh?

Your loving son

Robert (people call me Bob now!)

Tariana Turia,

MP and leader of the Maori Party, to Tariuha Manawaroa of

Te Awe Awe, farmer and uncle who raised her as his own.

Hi Dad

Since the advent of the Maori Party I've been thinking about you a lot, given your strong alliances to both the Ratana Movement and the Labour Party and I have been thinking about what you would have wanted me to do.

When I was very young my greatest memory of you is the stories you told that shaped your thinking, the values you upheld, the respect you had for the mana and dignity of others, and your gentleness. In everything you did, there was a kaupapa and a tikanga associated.

I remember how important it was that earning the respect of whanau and others was more important than whether they liked you. It is with these things in mind that you have been often in my thoughts.

You travelled the world with Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, along with Mum's two sisters and her father, because of the situation at that time when the loss of our lands and our resources was huge, and the Treaty seemed to have lost its importance.

The sad thing, Dad, is that little has changed.

The Treaty has never been ratified. Our people continue to have grievances, so it is difficult to move on, and today we face a modern-day confiscation of the foreshore and seabed.

When you used to talk of these matters, the significance of them was not understood until I reached adulthood. I never dreamed that one day I would be telling those same stories to my mokopuna. I know you would have expected me to act with the courage of my convictions.

It's been a long time since we've seen each other, but my unconditional love for you remains, for all that you were.

Your girl

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